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Friday, February 25, 2005

Robbing Pedro to Pay...Highland Park?

The funds in the latest public ed bill appear to be much less than meets the eye
BY AMY SMITH
AUSTIN CHRONICLE
Feb. 25, 2005

Last week, Rep. Pat Haggerty became the first major Republican House member to publicly criticize the centerpiece education bill that the GOP leadership is touting as the "Roadmap to Results" on school finance. As a nine-term legislator from El Paso, Haggerty's criticism of the bill comes with first-hand knowledge of the specific funding and teaching needs of schools in El Paso County, where more than a third of Hispanic children live in poverty, and 10% go on to become high school dropouts.

Haggerty joined more than three dozen members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus last week in denouncing HB 2 as a measure that would only widen the inequities between property-rich and property-poor school districts – directly contrary to a December court order directing the Legislature to resolve the school finance crisis. (On Friday, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the attorney general's appeal of that decision, bypassing the Court of Appeals.)

The bill's author, Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chair of the House Public Education Committee, says his legislation would pump more than $3 billion "new dollars" into public education while "taking the sting out of Robin Hood's arrow" by reducing the amount of money recaptured from property-rich districts. At the same time, the legislation contains a strong shape-up-or-ship-out message to school administrators and teachers, with calls for greater accountability on standardized testing scores and the creation of a merit-raise system in place of across-the-board salary increases for teachers.

But MALC members asked how can lawmakers can expect academic achievement without providing the necessary investment. "The irony is that kids are treated equally when it comes to tests and standards and expectations, but not treated equally when providing funds to meet those standards and expectations," said caucus chair Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. "If there is no new money," Haggerty added, "there can be no advance in education, and there can be no advance in equality."

Grusendorf later took issue with MALC's criticisms, coming down particularly hard on Haggerty, the lone Republican to speak out at the press briefing. "Pat is not familiar with the bill," Grusendorf told Quorum Report. "He's parroting what somebody said."

The Money vs. the Kids

Haggerty, reached last Friday in El Paso, disagreed. "It's real easy to read numbers, and the money is just not there." The $3.3 billion in "new" money, Haggerty said, doesn't come close to recovering the $3.7 billion in education cuts made in the 2003 session.

Under HB 2, most districts would receive funding increases between 3% and 8%, but many wealthy school districts would get much more than that. "Look at Highland Park," Haggerty said. "They'd be getting a 52% increase in funding." Indeed, Highland Park, an old-money Dallas community and one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, has become a poster child for what's wrong with Grusendorf's legislation.

Critics of the bill say that HB 2 largely ignores what MALC members and the state's own demographer keep reminding us – that the future of Texas will look much like the predominantly Hispanic border communities of today. In other words, without funding that addresses the needs of poor school districts and children considered "at risk" because they are not proficient in English, the Texas of 2040 will, according to state demographer Steve Murdock, see a 40% increase in poverty, a 50% rise in welfare recipients, a 54.3% increase in prison population, and an overall $6.3 billion increase in elementary and secondary education costs. According to one state study, funding needs increase as the number of low-income and English-deficient students increases, yet MALC members point out that HB 2 directs substantially less money to these students than what the state study recommends.

"HB 2 leaves 90% of the children behind," Gallego said. "The disconnect between this bill and the basic needs of Texas schoolchildren is appalling."

Casinos, Credit, and Canadian Drugs

With less than two weeks remaining before the filing deadline, hundreds of new bills are popping up daily – although many are dead on arrival. One major bill still very much in play, filed last Friday, is the long-anticipated but very controversial casino gambling proposal that would give Texas a taste of Las Vegas. As expected, Valley Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, will carry HB 1337 and its House Joint Resolution 49, which calls for a Nov. 8 statewide election on the proposed constitutional amendment. It's not clear that this specific bill has a shot, but pressure is building overall for some form of gambling as an additional revenue source for schools.

As goes gambling, so goes credit card debt – and possibly a new law that would require credit card companies to tell consumers how long it will take to pay off their debt. Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said he filed HB 1089 to protect the more vulnerable consumers who can only afford to make the minimum monthly payments. "Texans should be able to look at their credit card bill and know that if they only pay the monthly minimum, then this is when their credit card debt will be paid off," said Burnam (e.g., sometime in the next millennium). The bill, if passed, would require companies to include the pay-off date on their monthly statements. Burnam said that about half of all credit card holders pay only their minimum monthly requirement.

On the pharmaceutical front, two Houston Democrats – state Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Scott Hochberg – have started drumming up support for legislation that would allow Texans to make online prescription drug purchases from Canada. The legislative proposals (SB 518 and HB 173) would allow the Texas State Board of Pharmacy to license Canadian pharmacies to sell and ship prescription drugs directly to consumers, Ellis said. In a press conference last week, the Houston legislators said that state residents could see huge savings on popular drugs obtained from Canada, including a 45% savings on the cholesterol drug Lipitor. The two companion bills are modeled after other programs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Hampshire, and Vermont, among others, Ellis said.

Copyright © 2005 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.

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